New Memoir by Natasha Trethewey M.A. ’91 Earns Praise and Inspires Dialogue

Memorial Drive

“To survive trauma, one must be able to tell a story about it,” writes Natasha Trethewey M.A. ’91.

In her new book, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, the Pulitzer Prize winner and two-time U.S. Poet Laureate courageously and compellingly faces, after more than three decades, the shooting death of her mother by her second husband and Trethewey’s former stepfather. The murder followed years of domestic abuse.

“The reason that I am a writer is that tremendous loss from when I was 19,” Trethewey relates in an interview with Esquire magazine. But, as her public profile grew during her terms as poet laureate, PBS NewsHour Chief Arts Correspondent Jeffrey Brown notes that the author “saw articles written about her make her mother’s killing almost kind of a footnote.”

Trethewey tells Brown, “And I thought, if that was going to continue to happen, that I needed to be the one to tell her story, so that she could be put in her proper context….”

Esquire calls this summer’s publication of Memorial Drive “a second alignment of the stars” for Trethewey in that it “confronts the murder of her mother as well as our nation’s fraught racial legacy.”

“Not only is it that all of these [race-based topics] are coming to a head right now,” she says, “but also, the pandemic has increased the number of cases of domestic violence. People are sheltering in place often with their abusers because they have no choice. So, to see these things intersecting in such a powerful and traumatic way is difficult, but it also suggests that maybe we’ll be able to have a conversation and a reckoning with it that we haven’t quite had before.”

The memoir has resounded with journalists and critics at a number of major media outlets. Along with the profiles in Esquire (which has already named Memorial Drive one of its Best Books of 2020) and on PBS NewsHour, Trethewey has been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and The Atlantic, and heard on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. People magazine named Memorial Drive its Book of the Week (while also citing Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle M.A. ’81 in the same issue as one of the week’s Best New Books), while the New York Post included it among its Best Books of the Week for the first week of August.

Memorial Drive has also garnered enthusiastic acclaim, both nationally and internationally:

  • “Trethewey’s masterpiece.” – The New York Times
  • “Trethewey has delivered the kind of book that can only come from a writer at the height of her powers, a human at the height of her wisdom and pathos.” – Chicago magazine
  • “An enduring work, beautiful and horrific.” – The Star-Tribune (Minneapolis)
  • “Trethewey excavates her mother’s life, transforming her from tragic victim to luminous human being. She is a living, breathing dynamo, coming of age in the Jim Crow South, breaking out of the restrictions imposed on her.” – The Washington Post
  • “An exquisitely written, elegiac memoir. Memorial Drive is Trethewey’s gorgeous exploration of all the wounds that never heal: her mother’s, her own, and the wounds of slavery and racism on the soul of a troubled nation.” – USA Today
  • “Stunning….As Trethewey revisits her past, she again turns on a light in the darkest of corners, piecing together the memories of her childhood and her mother’s death as the hands of her stepfather. Her pain still feels primal, but the poet confronts shadows to reveal, as she writes, ‘the story I tell myself to survive.’” – Garden & Gun
  • “Three decades ago that masterly American writer Tobias Wolff published This Boy’s Life, his classic memoir of a troubled childhood and a bullying, unpredictably violent stepfather. It’s no exaggeration to say that Natasha Trethewey’s book belongs in the same exalted company.” – The Times (London)

When asked during her Esquire interview what has to happen in publishing so that “stories that hit a variety of identities get to be told on an equally grand scale as those that come from white authors with white characters,” Trethewey shares the story of a young, white college student from South Carolina who was initially dismissive when her professor assigned her class to read the author’s first collection of poems, Domestic Work, which explores the working lives of African-Americans in the pre-civil rights era of the 20th century. But, Trethewey says, after reading the book, “She saw her own family in my family.”

Trethewey concludes, “We need to understand that Black writers, or other writers of color, are telling stories that relate to all of us. They’re not just stories that are only about that select group of people. Humanity is the thing that we all have in common.”